So here you go. Enjoy.
The entry on Whatever immediately previous to this one makes this next Reader Request question all the more relevant. It’s from Sarah, who asks:
Why are you glad to have been born male? What do women get to do that you envy? I’ve really enjoyed your discussions of male privilege, so if you have more to say on the topic, I’d be thrilled to read it. That said, there are several ways you could address my question without touching upon privilege: peeing standing up vs. wearing skirts; freedom from menstrual cramps vs. gestating, birthing and nursing a baby, etc. etc.
Are you kidding? I’m glad to be male because no one fucking cares what I do with or to my body. And we’re not just talking about politicians and their nonsense, although they are the most obvious examples of this recently. I’m talking about everyone, in almost every circumstance. No one cares what I wear. No one cares what I weigh or what I eat. No one cares whether I brushed my hair or shaved when I came out of the house. No one cares that I’m having sex, or how much sex I’m having, or what I do with my body as a consequence of having sex. No one cares. And if they do care, they keep it to themselves because I’m a guy and it’s not their fucking business anyway.
And, you know, there’s all the other stuff too: Don’t have to deal with people sexually harassing me because I’m a guy, my chance of being raped or sexually assaulted is spectacularly low, I get paid more because I’m a guy and don’t even have to ask (and when I do ask to be paid more I’m not thought to be out of line), I get to express my opinion and not be classified as an mentally unreasonable person because of it, people default to listening to what I have to say, and so on.
I’ll just come right out and say it: being male is easy. Being male, white, educated, able-bodied, well-off and attracted to women? Shit, man. Easier still. It’s perfect for me, you know, because I’m lazy. All these unearned credits and passes and wave-offs from ridiculous shit are perfect for someone like me. Why would I want to be anything else? Anything else is work.
This is all, obviously, horribly unfair in my favor. I am not opposed to — indeed, actively encourage and work toward — things becoming less negatively unfair for everyone else. Unfortunately, this idea makes many people of my kind twitchy, I suppose because they assume that making things less unfair for everyone else means that things get worse for them. The idea that everyone having the same rights and privileges isn’t a zero-sum game where someone has to lose apparently doesn’t compute. It makes me sad that a class of people who have so many advantages can still be in aggregate that completely stupid.
What do I envy women? I don’t know that I envy women anything, short of the ability to give birth, and I’m not sure “envy” is the right word there, since the idea of growing another human in my body scares the crap out of me for all sorts of reasons. That said, I would like to know what it’s like to be a woman, because — for all the reasons noted above and lots of others that I have not touched on — I don’t really know what it’s like, and it means that despite my efforts toward empathy, there’s a lot I just don’t get. I wish there were a way for me to know, and while I’m at it, I wish there were a way for other men to know, too.
Actually, if I had a choice there, I’d rather some particular other men would spend time as a woman. I have a list. I don’t know if it would actually do any good. But in their cases, it certainly couldn’t hurt.
A friend of mine is a physician who wants to speak about transvaginal ultrasounds but whose position makes it precarious to speak publicly about it. So I’m letting this doctor borrow my site for an entry to speak anonymously on the matter. Obviously, I will vouch for the doctor being a doctor and being qualified to speak on the subject.
Update, 9:14pm: This post is being linked to far and wide, so we’re getting lots of new readers and commenters. It’s important that before you comment you read the site disclaimer and comment policy. I delete comments I find particularly stupid. Try not to write one of them.
Update: 12:13am, 3/21: I’m going to bed, so I turned off the comments for the night. I’ll turn them back on when I get up tomorrow. Night!
Update: 1pm, 3/21: As a head’s up to people, at 8pm eastern time tonight, I will turning off the comments for this thread permanently. The reason for this is while I can spend a day moderating the thread, I can’t spend the next week doing so. Sorry, folks, I have a book to write. So consider this fair notice. Thanks.
Update: 8pm, 3/21: Comment thread is now closed.
I’m speaking, of course, about the required-transvaginal-ultrasound thing that seems to be the flavor-of-the-month in politics.
I do not care what your personal politics are. I think we can all agree that my right to swing my fist ends where your face begins.
I do not feel that it is reactionary or even inaccurate to describe an unwanted, non-indicated transvaginal ultrasound as “rape”. If I insert ANY object into ANY orifice without informed consent, it is rape. And coercion of any kind negates consent, informed or otherwise.
In all of the discussion and all of the outrage and all of the Doonesbury comics, I find it interesting that we physicians are relatively silent.
After all, it’s our hands that will supposedly be used to insert medical equipment (tools of HEALING, for the sake of all that is good and holy) into the vaginas of coerced women.
Fellow physicians, once again we are being used as tools to screw people over. This time, it’s the politicians who want to use us to implement their morally reprehensible legislation. They want to use our ultrasound machines to invade women’s bodies, and they want our hands to be at the controls. Coerced and invaded women, you have a problem with that? Blame us evil doctors. We are such deliciously silent scapegoats.
It is our responsibility, as always, to protect our patients from things that would harm them. Therefore, as physicians, it is our duty to refuse to perform a medical procedure that is not medically indicated. Any medical procedure. Whatever the pseudo-justification.
It’s time for a little old-fashioned civil disobedience.
Here are a few steps we can take as physicians to protect our patients from legislation such as this.
1) Just don’t comply. No matter how much our autonomy as physicians has been eroded, we still have control of what our hands do and do not do with a transvaginal ultrasound wand. If this legislation is completely ignored by the people who are supposed to implement it, it will soon be worth less than the paper it is written on.
2) Reinforce patient autonomy. It does not matter what a politician says. A woman is in charge of determining what does and what does not go into her body. If she WANTS a transvaginal ultrasound, fine. If it’s medically indicated, fine… have that discussion with her. We have informed consent for a reason. If she has to be forced to get a transvaginal ultrasound through coercion or overly impassioned argument or implied threats of withdrawal of care, that is NOT FINE.
Our position is to recommend medically-indicated tests and treatments that have a favorable benefit-to-harm ratio… and it is up to the patient to decide what she will and will not allow. Period. Politicians do not have any role in this process. NO ONE has a role in this process but the patient and her physician. If anyone tries to get in the way of that, it is our duty to run interference.
3) If you are forced to document a non-indicated transvaginal ultrasound because of this legislation, document that the patient refused the procedure or that it was not medically indicated. (Because both of those are true.) Hell, document that you attempted but the patient kicked you in the nose, if you have to.
4) If you are forced to enter an image of the ultrasound itself into the patient chart, ultrasound the bedsheets and enter that picture with a comment of “poor acoustic window”. If you’re really gutsy, enter a comment of “poor acoustic window…plus, I’m not a rapist.” (I was going to propose repeatedly entering a single identical image in affected patient’s charts nationwide, as a recognizable visual protest…but I don’t have an ultrasound image that I own to the point that I could offer it for that purpose.)
5) Do anything else you can think of to protect your patients and the integrity of the medical profession. IN THAT ORDER. We already know how vulnerable patients can be; we invisibly protect them on a daily basis from all kinds of dangers inside and outside of the hospital. Their safety is our responsibility, and we practically kill ourselves to ensure it at all costs. But it’s also our responsibility to guard the practice of medicine from people who would hijack our tools of healing for their own political or monetary gain.
In recent years, we have been abject failures in this responsibility, and untold numbers of people have gleefully taken advantage of that. Silently allowing a politician to manipulate our medical decision-making for the purposes of an ideological goal erodes any tiny scrap of trust we might have left.
It comes down to this: When the community has failed a patient by voting an ideologue into office…When the ideologue has failed the patient by writing legislation in his own interest instead of in the patient’s…When the legislative system has failed the patient by allowing the legislation to be considered… When the government has failed the patient by allowing something like this to be signed into law… We as physicians cannot and must not fail our patients by ducking our heads and meekly doing as we’re told.
Because we are their last line of defense.
You never know what you’ll find when you go to the cafe down the street — that is, if you take Nick Harkaway’s word for it. His latest novel Angelmaker owes a debt to what he found in a cafe… and more importantly, what that found thing did when it met a delightful but dicey character rolling around in Harkaway’s head. Let’s get right into it, shall we?
Picture an English gent in middle age, round-faced and fleshy. Fix a glint of mischief in his eye and give him an almost soldierly bearing, for it’s true, he did enlist to serve his country, though life conspired – as he will tell you with some sorrow – to keep him from active service. At one stage, in an effort to repair this deficit, he stood as a candidate for parliament and was defeated only by a campaign of slander and slurs. He is an intimate of aristocrats and celebrities, of famous sportsmen and even of famous criminals, because in this year of Our Lord nineteen sixty something a mobster can still be a species of hero in London. The Krays, it’s widely known, keep crime off the streets. Banks may get robbed, but little old ladies can walk in safety down quiet residential lanes. This portly fellow lives in a world of corduroy and shag pile carpets, stuffy clubs in St James and swinging bars in Soho. He’s a regular at St Moritz. He’s a veritable man for all seasons. Just don’t invest your money with him.
His name is Ronnie Cornwell, and he was my father’s father: a con artist so fluently persuasive that at least two published autobiographies of well-known men make reference to being fleeced by him, and hotels around Europe lost fortunes to his charm. Ronnie could roll up at a grand establishment with an entourage of dozens and gull the manager into giving him an entire floor for his court, the best service and the best champagne, and a fortnight later they would vanish in a carefully choreographed magic trick leaving the Maître holding the tab. But that isn’t the clever bit. The clever bit is that six months later he’d be back and would somehow, against all reason, contrive to run the game again on the same people. He was never a gangster, though he knew them, but Ronnie was a genuine dyed in the wool crook – and not, in the end, a very nice man.
Fast forward to 2008: in a small café around the corner from my flat, I saw a broken clockwork toy skitter across a table and drop to the floor. To the child who owned it and to his mother, the toy was on its way out. It had gone from a plaything to a piece of rubbish, the weird, wiry spiderlegs twisted out of shape so that instead of walking it now bounced and juddered, pathetically syncopated and wayward. When they left, the toy stayed where it was.
To me, it was perfect. It was a machine which made you care about it; its very flaws were what made it special. Rowland Emett, whose kinetic sculptures were something like Rube Goldberg’s, once said that ordinary machines perform a function and therefore excite fear and loathing, whereas his creations performed no function of any use and thus excited only love. The skittering thing bounding gamely around on the floor felt like a kindred spirit, and I asked the waitress if I could take it home. In my mind it was already growing, becoming part of something larger, something huge and unexpected and weirdly 19th Century: a machine which could make the world better, not indirectly like a washing machine, but directly, by action upon the mind of mankind.
Ideas like that have been around for a while, products of the Enlightenment: better living through knowledge. The seductive idea of the Big Fix, the single solution which sorts out the world’s problems, keeps coming up. This year it’s quantum computing and biotech. A few decades ago it was industrial-scale agriculture to feed the world and Mutually Assured Destruction to save it. When you come to it, nothing quite pans out the way it’s supposed to.
Those two concepts – the crook and the machine – were zinging around in my brain, knocking over the furniture and throwing parties for all sorts of other little ideas which had been around for a while quietly awaiting their time: a fabulous, heavily-armed old woman, John Ruskin’s Arts & Crafts movement, mad monks and war elephants so on. But there was still a piece missing: the right villain. The wrong bad guy, or a bad guy who isn’t wrong enough, can kill a story stone dead. You can’t admire a hero who defeats a merely ordinary threat. For the hero to shine, you need an antagonist with real teeth.
All right. A gizmo which changes the world – a revolution machine, whatever the precise details of its function – is the territory of the high concept villain. Well and good, but I needed someone who would be scary rather than laughable. Where would such a man come from? Well, inevitably, from Britain’s imperial past. That’s where most of the real life enemies we deal with come from: old, bad choices. And there he was, waiting for me: a monologuing monster who understood that he risked being ridiculous if ever he failed to deliver on the promise of atrocity, and wasn’t going to. And all I had to do was let him loose.
So truthfully it wasn’t one big idea, it was more than that, all woven together – which is the cheat of writing, at least the way I do it: simple enough thoughts, produced one at a time, woven together until they look impossibly complex and spectacular. It’s like being a stand-up comedian, except that you get eighteen months to be funny that onetime, and as many redos as you like.
So… how does it all come out? Well, it turns out that machines which change the whole world all at once are maybe a little dangerous; that elephants are not universally good sailors; and that sometimes you have to be a crook to be a hero.
The bees wish to inform you that Spring has commenced. They may be ever so early (the Vernal Equinox is actually tomorrow at 1:14 am Eastern time), but that’s bees for you. Industrious as heck, they are. I suggest listening to them.
The next Reader Request question, from Brian H., in e-mail, who asks:
Do you lie? Do you lie often? Do you regret lying?
The answers: Yes of course; define “often”; no, not usually.
The “yes, of course,” is because everyone lies and I don’t pretend I’m the exception to the rule. The “define ‘often’” answer is because I have no idea what qualifies as “often.” If it’s once an hour, then no. Once a day, possibly. Once a week: Hell, yes. The “no, not usually” is because generally if I’m lying to someone, it’s because I decided it was the appropriate thing to do in that situation — the best course of action in that circumstance — and I don’t generally regret doing what I think is necessary.
And you may say: When might I find it necessary to lie to someone? Well, as examples:
1. If I’ve been asked to keep something in confidence and you ask me about it, I will lie to you.
2. If you ask me a personal question and I don’t feel that I know you and/or trust you and/or like you and/or your discretion is not reliable and/or any other particular reason that disinclines me to answer the question truthfully, I will lie to you.
3. If I know something I don’t think it’s useful for you to know, and you ask me about it, I will lie to you.
4. If you knowing something will make you and/or me deeply unhappy for what I consider not worthwhile reasons, and you ask me about it, I will lie to you.
And so on; these are just four obvious examples.
Bear in mind that I don’t generally lie for the sake of lying. That’s really stupid, and I’m not that good of a liar. Most things aren’t worth lying about, and as a rule I do try to live my life in a manner so that lying isn’t something I have to do a lot of. Life is simpler that way. And in particular I think generally speaking you’re a fool if you lie to your spouse on a regular basis. I lied to Krissy once in our relationship — it had to do with flowers I sent to her on her birthday — and she knew it immediately and mocked me mercilessly (though not unkindly) for it. On the basis of that I decided that there would be no advantage whatsoever in lying to her about anything else, particularly things she would actually get pissed about. This is a practical decision which has served me well for many years. Likewise, I try not to lie to my kid. Everyone else is subject to being lied to if necessary.
But of course that’s the other thing: It’s usually not necessary. Let me give you an example. A month ago, while I was at Boskone, my father-in-law died, which necessitated me leaving the convention earlier than I had been scheduled to. While I told the con committee about what happened, what I really didn’t want was for it to become general knowledge. The last thing I needed, from a keeping-my-shit-together-emotionally point of view, was an entire convention of people offering condolences and hugs and stories about their own similar situations. So I didn’t talk about it and asked the con committee not to talk about it, and so aside from a very few people, I didn’t have to talk about it. If someone who wasn’t a friend has asked me why I was leaving early, I would have lied to them about it in the most innocuous way possible (probably something along the lines of “my flights got rearranged,” which was technically true because I rearranged them). But it wasn’t necessary because people didn’t know. Thus is illustrated the power of simply keeping quiet.
(Also illustrated: the fact that not every lie needs be malicious, or designed to keep people from knowing unseemly things. I have no doubt whatsoever that the good folks at Boskone, had they known, would have been sympathetic and supportive and caring, and I appreciate what they would have been trying to be and do for me. But the thing is that I was both extremely upset at Mike’s passing and that I was not at home for my wife when her father died, or for my daughter when her grandfather passed away. I was not in the right place, emotionally or geographically, for the sympathy of others at that moment. Lying in that case would have kept me from losing it, in more than one way.)
As a general rule I don’t recommend lying, since it often complicates life and hurts people and makes one look like an ass. But as you can see I don’t believe it’s always an evil, either. It has its time and place, and for me it’s a recognition that I’m not required to share every single thing that goes on in my life with every single person. That’s perfectly fine, and I don’t have a problem editing the public presentation of my life in that way.
So, yes: I lie, and generally do not regret doing so. But generally speaking I do try not to. And that’s the truth.
(It’s not too late to get questions in for this year’s Reader Request Week — add yours here).
Let’s go ahead and get Reader Request Week started, shall we? To begin, this question from SMQ:
You have a well-earned reputation for snark and the art of the thought-out-but-blistering retort, but unlike many you usually seem to avoid crossing the line too far into personal attacks (and are even quick to mallet those who do so in comment threads). Where do you see the line between snark and ad hominem? Is it a sharp line or a fuzzy one? Other than raw talent, how do you personally maintain that balance?
First, to be pedantic, an ad hominem argument is different than a personal attack. Here’s a personal attack: “You’re a worm.” Here’s an ad hominem argument: “You’re a worm, therefore your opinion on the Republican primaries is worthless.” You may or may not be a worm of a person, but it does not follow that because you’re a worm, your opinion on the GOP primaries is invalid; it may be that you’re extraordinarily versed on the Republican candidates, their positions and their relative strengths in each primary, and that, independently, you have worm-like personal qualities that mean you’re not worth spending time with on a regular basis. It’s also the case that not every ad hominem argument is a poor one, to wit: “You’re appallingly ignorant, therefore your opinion on the Republican primaries is worthless.” If one is indeed appallingly ignorant, particularly on political matters, it may put one in a poor position to have a worthwhile opinion on the GOP primaries. That said, most people don’t employ ad hominem arguments in this fashion.
Pedantry aside, I think what’s being asked here is how do I keep a written piece involving a person from crossing over from legitimate criticism to simple (and mere) insult. I don’t have an actual checklist for these things, but when I’m writing an entry, here are some of the things I think about.
1. Public or private figure: I’m more likely to be more free with my snark if the person at whom it is aimed is a public figure — a politician, celebrity, writer, etc — than I am if it’s just some person. This is partly years of working as a professional journalist inculcating the practical aspects of New York Times v. Sullivan into my brain, and partly a recognition that I natively have tens of thousands of daily readers and can on occasion, with the right topic, produce an exponentially larger number of readers through links, reposting, and media coverage, thus making it easy for me to really mess up someone’s day. So I do choose my targets.
For example, when Kirk Cameron shows up on Piers Morgan’s talk show and expounds on his views regarding homosexuality, he’s doing so in his capacity as a public figure: he was on the show promoting his latest work, he’s a person who actively courts the public eye to express his religious and social views and the show is broadcast to a national audience. An example of the opposite end of things: A teenage girl writing in her blog criticizing something I wrote, which I felt could use a response. This was a private individual expressing her view on a blog which while ostensibly public was not at all well-trafficked and for which there was no expectation that the opinion would circulate beyond her own personal circle of friends and readers.
Do I treat both equally? Of course not. Kirk Cameron is an adult and a public figure and however much he whines about how it’s unfair that people are mean to him, is eminently capable of handling criticism of any sort. The teenage girl was not courting the public with her commentary, and would likely have been embarrassed by an influx of visitors to her site wanting to engage her on the topic. So Kirk Cameron I feel fine unloading on; the girl I was careful not to, up to and including not linking to her site (or quoting her directly, which would have made it easy for the ambitious to find her).
Mr. Cameron’s indubitably a public figure, and the anonymous teenage girl is indubitably a private figure, but what about, say, Lori Jareo, who several years ago tried to sell her Star Wars fanfic on Amazon? Or Judith Griggs, former editor of Cooks Source? A not unreasonable number of people who I comment on fall somewhere in the middle of the line and my choice to comment on them or not — or to publicly identify and link to a comment — really is a judgement call. Whether I make that call correctly in every case is open to question.
2. On point vs. pointless: Let’s go back to Kirk Cameron, as I have discussed him most recently, when he described homosexuality as “unnatural” and detrimental to civilization. Quiz for you: Which of the following do you think I think is legitimate to call him, and which do you think is less so?
a) “Ignorant bigot”
b) “Pestilent toad”
The answer: a). It’s legitimate to suggest Mr. Cameron’s an ignorant bigot because one, he doesn’t appear to know that homosexuality is in fact totally natural and well-documented as occurring in the natural world (thus, “ignorant”), and two, he believes that homosexuality is detrimental to civilization, and also that “unnatural” is a negative thing in his assessment (thus “bigot”). And call Mr. Cameron an “ignorant bigot” I did.
(I’ll note here that in the comments thread to the piece, some folks offered a number of defenses for use of the word “unnatural,” among them theological and philosophical concepts reaching back to Aquinas. In my opinion that gives Mr. Cameron, champion of the Crocoduck, rather a lot of unearned credit, but even if it’s true what it essentially means is that Cameron’s using “unnatural” in the sense of “opposed to a philosophical construct of the concept of ‘natural’ which in itself has no rigorous scientific relationship to what occurs in the natural world.” Which to my mind does not improve things dramatically for him.)
It’s rather less legitimate to label Mr. Cameron a “pestilent toad,” because, well. He seems pretty clean. But more to the point, calling him a pestilent toad doesn’t really do much other than call him a name. One may argue that he spreads the pestilence of intolerance and that his antipathy toward gays is positively amphibian, but you have to explain it and it seems the long way around, sort of like suggesting how “unnatural” really refers to philosophical concepts pioneered by Aquinas. It might be better to keep things simple, or if not simple, then immediately relatable to the subject on hand.
Now, ironically, should Mr. Cameron ever attempt to sue me for libel, my defense would be marginally better if I did refer to him as a pestilent toad than an ignorant bigot, because I could claim “pestilent toad” as an example of hyperbole, since I don’t really believe he’s an actual pestilent toad, whereas I suspect he may be an actual ignorant bigot. But this goes back to the whole “public figure” thing.
3. The whole “there’s a person there” thing: Public figure or not, Mr. Cameron’s a human being and I suspect on a day-to-day basis he’s perfectly nice to his wife, family members, etc, as are other people who have particular opinions or actions I might disagree with or oppose (Note: this is not your cue to haul out stories of Mr. Cameron being a terrible person from his Growing Pains days, or to remind me that Hitler surely loved his dogs). And while the Internet does make it easy to forget that you’re responding to or about an actual human being rather than a bunch of words on a screen, that’s all the more reason to remember there’s a person there. So I do operate on the principle of not saying about others that which I would not have said about me. This fact must necessarily be tempered with the understanding that I am someone who gleefully collects one-star reviews and sends back hate mail for being insufficiently creative, with the demand that the writer revise and do it better.
Even so, it makes me less inclined to go head-hunting just for the thrill of head-hunting. That was fun once, but now I’m in my forties and the thrill of pounding on someone just to pound on them has lessened considerably. I do try to have a point to it.
Which brings us to the final point:
4. Having a point: When I bang on someone, it’s usually not just to bang on them for existing but to talk about something they said/did/believe. Also, when I bring them up, generally I’m not talking to that person specifically; I’m talking to the people who are reading here. And while I know everyone loves watching me get my snark on, I flatter myself — and my readers — in supposing they are not just here to watch me explode; they want a cogent point in there somewhere. That being the case, there’s a point at which any snark aimed at the person stops being a persuasive part of the argument and starts being its own thing to the detraction of the larger argument. The trick is staying on the right side of that. The three points above help me make that determination, but it’s also the experience of writing this sort of way that helps me know where that line is.
And, you know, sometimes I don’t know — sometimes I screw up and make an ass of myself unintentionally. Sometimes I might decide I don’t want to be constructive and just want to vent, in which case I may make an ass out of myself intentionally. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve toed the line perfectly but any one of you (or more) will decide that I’ve gone too far — this is often but not always correlative with whether the person or subject I’m going off on is one you’re passionate about. Toeing the line isn’t an exact science. Fortunately, I don’t have problems apologizing when it’s obvious that’s what needs to be done.
Which is another topic entirely, so let’s end this piece here.
(It’s not too late to get questions in for this year’s Reader Request Week — add yours here).
In today’s New York Times “Wedding and Celebrations” section, this headline:
The question: In a male same-sex wedding, can either partner actually be said to be “bridegroom”? There’s a technical issue with the word, to wit, a notable lack of a bride.
They could each be a “groomgroom,” but that’s just redundant and/or recursive.
Possibly best to just call them each “groom,” and then not think too hard about it.
I figure half of you are saying “Who is Mandy Moore?” and the other half are asking “Who is Joan Armatrading?” SHAME ON YOU ALL.
The video is slightly embarrassing for Ms. Moore, as videos so often are. The cover itself, however, is not bad.
I’ll be back later. With a drilled head.
A number of years ago I interviewed two survivors of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which in 1973 crashed in the Andes and then remained lost for 72 days, forcing the survivors of the crash to eat the bodies of the dead to survive. They made a movie out of the story called Alive, which some of you may recall. You might think that having to do that would change something in a person, but the two men I interviewed were, as it happened, pretty much completely normal. They just happened to have made a particular survival decision at a critical time.
PEADAR Ó GUILÍN:
My big idea is not mine at all. I stole it from a Frenchman, four hundred years dead and 350 out of copyright. There’s evidence of the theft, right there on the very first page of my first book, The Inferior:
In that people the most natural and honest of virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous; those same virtues that we have warped and adapted to our own twisted tastes.
Michel de Montaigne: On Cannibals
He’s talking about cannibals. He’s comparing them to civilized folk and wondering whether the fact that a savage’s dinner can talk back to him makes him any less noble than we are. I wanted to find out, and so, I set about creating a laboratory. I’ll provide instructions so you can try it for yourselves:
1) Take one primitive human tribe. Deprive them of all edible plants and animals.
2) Surround them with hundreds of equally primitive, equally hungry groups of perfectly sentient aliens.
After that, the whole experiment pretty much runs itself. You can watch alliances forming; see groups hunting each other for the pot or bartering older members of the family who can’t work any more. It’s fascinating for a while, really it is, but that’s only half the story, isn’t it? Savages acting like savages doesn’t surprise anybody, not even their mothers.
No, just as happened in Montaigne’s famous essay, I needed a high human civilization to come along to get all judgy and sneery and interventiony.
These days, I eat like a vegan and in my laboratory universe, the future is vegetarian too. Centuries of environmental collapse have put people like me in the driver’s seat. An age from now, billions of Peadars will regard the chewing of little animals as an abomination. So just imagine the stern looks for those who shove intelligent aliens or fellow humans down their gullets, no matter how tasty or tender.
In the interests of science, I brought the two groups together, forcing civilized humans to live in amongst their primitive cousins. It was a bit like one of those reality TV shows where they send celebrities into the jungle to eat centipedes or Kangaroo penis, except that my victims had no way out of the difficult decisions. That’s the difference between science and art: a lot of real authors would have intervened and saved them, but that would have negated my findings.
And what were they? Those precious results?
The majority of test subjects chose carnivorism over death. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: cannibalism is rife in human history. I’m not just talking about missionary-munching tribes in the Amazon or about the bones of cavemen that have been found covered in little cuts where the meat was scraped away by their two-footed relatives. Cannibalism is the dirty secret of every famine and every war in human history; of disasters big and small; of lost expeditions.
My belief, is that we are all descendants of people who did such things in order to survive. These actions are rightly upsetting in civilised surroundings and hopefully, if we can escape Peak Oil, rogue asteroids, sneezing chickens and so on, most of us will never find ourselves in that position.
But we shouldn’t pour scorn on those who do. That’s my reading of Montaigne, anyway, and that’s why, when stealing this big idea of his, my aim was always to make my cannibal protagonist as sympathetic as possible without ever compromising on his survival- and tradition-driven behaviours.
Did I succeed? Well, to quote that dear old Frenchman one more time, “Que sçais-je?” — “What do I know?”
SFWA’s Solstice Award, given to recognize those “who have consistently had a positive, transformative influence on the genre of science fiction and fantasy,” is this year being given to Octavia Butler and John Clute. SFWA’s press release on this year’s awards is on the SFWA site; naturally I encourage you to click through and learn more. Naturally, I am delighted to have SFWA recognize both of these folks.
(Comments off here, per my standard practice with SFWA-related material; comments are open on the SFWA site.)
51 weeks a year, I write here on whatever topics I want to write about, because, hey, it’s my blog and I can do what I want. But one week a year I write here on whatever topics you want me to write about, because, hey, you read this blog, and sometimes I don’t always write about the things you’re interested in seeing me write on. I call that one week a year the Reader Request Week. Guess what? It’s going to start next Monday. This is where you get to suggest a topic for me to write about.
And what topics can you suggest? Any topic in the world — and indeed I like it when I get asked to write about topics that I don’t usually address. So ask away: Make your topic request silly or serious or sexy or obscure. Hey, you know what you want to know about better than I do. I don’t write on every request, but I do try to get a wide range of topics in over the week. So whatever you want me to write on, request it. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
With that said, let me post my usual admonitions:
One: Quality not quantity — I’d rather you request one seriously well-thought-out topic than blast out a laundry list of one-line topics. It’s not a race or contest, folks, and I’m more likely to entertain a request I think has some thought put into it.
Two: Questions on writing will not be a priority — Because, you know, I write about writing all the time. During Reader Request Week I like to address topics I wouldn’t generally think about. It’s not to say I won’t answer any writing topic request during the week, just that I’m rather less likely to, and the ones I’ll respond to aren’t going to be the basic-level stuff.
How to request a topic? I have two ways I prefer. The first is simply to drop the request in the comment thread here. That’s my favorite way, since it’s easy for me to scroll through and pick topics. The second way is through e-mail. I find that gets used by people who want to ask me questions they might not want to ask in a public comment thread (i.e., my thoughts on sex, etc), or whatever. If you send a question though e-mail, it will help me if you put “READER REQUEST WEEK” in the header.
I usually credit whomever asks a question, but on e-mailed questions people feel sensitive about I’m happy to employ a pseudonym (one may also of course use a pseudonym in the comment thread). I also prefer not to have requests sent via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, simply because the scrolly nature of their interfaces make it hard to keep track of the requests. Comment thread here or e-mail is the way to go.
Also, to help you not ask a question that’s already been answered recently, here’s the last five years of Reader Request Weeks. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while:
Reader Request #1: Justifying My Life
Reader Request #2: Coffee, or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #3: BaconCat Fame
Reader Request #4: The Inevitable Blackness That Will Engulf Us All
Reader Request #5: Out of Poverty
Reader Request #6: Short Bits
Reader Request #7: Short Bits II: Electric Boogaloo
Reader Request #1: Homeschooling
Reader Request #2: Technological Gifts
Reader Request #3: Sex and Video Games
Reader Request #4: Where I Am Now
Reader Request #5: Professional Jealousy
Reader Request #6: Author Relations
Reader Request #7: Fame or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #8: Politics and the Olympics
Reader Request #9: Polygamy
Reader Request #10: Meeting Authors (and Me)
Reader Request #11 Athena and Whatever
Reader Request #12: Soldiers and Support
Reader Request #13: Diminishing Returns
Reader Request #14: Quick Hits, Volume I
Reader Request #15: Quick Hits, Volume II
Reader Request #1: SF YA These Days
Reader Request #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)
Reader Request #3: Space!
Reader Request #4: Procreation
Reader Request #5: Having Been Poor
Reader Request #6: 80s Pop Music
Reader Request #7: Writing and Babies
Reader Request #8: Twitter
Reader Request #9: Can I Be Bought?
Reader Request #10: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request #11: Wrapping Up
Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits
Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever
Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me
Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade
Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments
Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations
Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans
Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11
Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11
Now: Get in your requests! I’ll start answering them next Monday. Thanks!
This week over at FilmCritic.com, I do math — and discuss why it is that movies, in order to make a profit, have to make so much more than they cost to make. This is a real problem, if, like John Carter, the film cost $250 million to begin with. Come and take a look, and get the scoop on a lesser-known part of the movie money-making business.
Generally? I was fine. I think I may need to blink slightly more often to avoid looking crazy. But otherwise I think I was okay. And I didn’t mess up my science! Which, frankly, was a relief.
I thought Nick Sagan was terrific, however. Great, warm TV presence. It runs in the family, quite obviously.
If you missed it, I think the Science Channel is running the show again a few more times in the week — check the schedule.
And remember, folks — Nick and I will be on TV again next week for part two, same science time, same Science Channel. Be there.
Costco isn’t just a place to pick up a 36-pack of toilet paper or to snack on free, tiny spears of sausage, it’s also a place where you might just also pick up an idea for a novel. At least, that’s what happened to Lissa Price, who found the idea for her debut novel Starters in just that location. No, she wasn’t looking for a story idea there. Let’s just say it was something of an impulse buy. Here she is to explain how she walked out of the store with this particular unexpected item.
My Big Idea was that in the future, desperate teens would rent out their bodies to rich seniors who could then enjoy being young again.
It came to me in Costco, a few years ago. Trying to get a flu shot.
The pharmaceutical companies didn’t make enough vaccine that year. So the US government had to set up a triage system. The very young and the elderly, and of course the infirm, were to get the vaccine first. It looked like a dystopian future with long lines of people in the hollow ugliness that is Costco. I didn’t fall into any of those categories so I left without the shot.
But I had the Big Idea. I thought, wow, what if this was a devastating disease and the only ones left were the weakest members of society?
It wasn’t until a few years later that I put it together and wrote it as my debut novel. I created a near-future where the only people left after the Spore Wars were the ones who were vaccinated: the elderly, called Enders; and the kids and teens, called Starters. Almost all the parents were dead, leaving a landscape of silver-haired Enders with the young Starters. I loved the contrast.
Of course there are remnants of VIP Middles — politicians, movie stars and people of power — who were able to get the vaccine and survive. But they’re not who you see every day.
This was the world, the canvas. The character I wanted to battle this oppressive system was a 16 year-old girl who had to protect her sickly 10 year-old brother as they lived on the streets for a year, fighting for food and squatting in abandoned office buildings. And when she discovers this place they call the body bank that will pay her enough money to get a home, she decides to take the risk. She allows them to plant a chip in her brain. I wanted to quickly get to the story, which was the “what went wrong” – that her renter wants to do more than just party, she plans to use the girl’s body to murder someone.
The rental place, called Prime Destinations, wasn’t stupid. They had programmed the renters’ chips so that no renter could kill. But the girl’s renter had also thought ahead, and had her tech guy alter the chip. However, in doing so, something else changed. Callie wakes up in her own body, displacing the renter. She enters the fairy tale life of her rich renter, living in a mansion, and going out with a senator’s grandson. More big twists follow, but that is the setup.
My focus is always on creating a fresh world as simply as possible that allows me to get to where I want to be, dealing with characters on different levels of reality. Some films that I like that address this are Inception and Memento, and a few books would be Never Let Me Go, Uglies, and Incarceron. I love to have two characters together in a room and at least one of them doesn’t know the truth about the other. And the reason is because it gives me this rich ground for both intellectual intrigue and also emotional depth. So while I use thriller pacing, I’ll slip in moments that I hope will resonate with the reader long after they’ve finished.
I like to follow an organic writing process, where I work back and forth from ideas to outline to pages, always drawing from and reacting to what is already there embedded in the story. This manuscript came out fairly smooth, with lots of yes moments where I saw that something I had planted early on would dovetail with later plot elements. One thing that changed was the first chapter. I tried different beginnings, thinking I should set up Callie’s life first. But one day I decided to do something that seemed so radical. I really wanted to dive in and start with her going through the doors of the body bank before you knew anything about her. And once I did that, there was no looking back.
Writers will understand my special challenges in writing this story after they’ve read it. But I don’t want to give away any spoilers here. One thing I can say is that I had to decide how much of the world and the history of the war I would explain, because I did not want to stop the thriller pacing of the narrative drive. When there was a choice between continuing the emotion, or answering what I imagined might be a question in the reader’s mind about the past, I opted to keep the emotion. It’s dystopian. It’s cautionary. But mostly, I want to take readers on a wild ride that leaves them breathless at the end, saying they never saw it coming.
When I finished writing, I got my agent in 24 hours via an email query. She sold it as a duology to Random House Children’s Books in 6 days, over a holiday weekend.
All this because I’m a Costco member.
From big-box stores come Big Ideas. Sometimes.
So, this would have been high on the list of Things I Was Not Expecting To See when I drove into my local library to drop off a copy of 24 Frames Into the Future for their collection:
However, it did remind me to let those of you in the area know that I’ll be doing an event at the Bradford Public Library, here in my hometown of Bradford, Ohio, on Saturday, March 31. It’ll be a morning event — it starts at 10:30 am — but that just means you’ll have a spring in your step for the whole rest of the day. I’ll be talking about the life of the writer, doing a reading, and also be signing copies of the soon-to-be-released paperback editions of Fuzzy Nation, among other books folks would like me to sign. The library site promises that “Space Refreshments” will be served, and of course those are the best kind of refreshments. Ever.
The event is free and open to the public, including folks who are not from Bradford. So if you’re from Troy, Piqua, Greenville, Versailles, Tipp City — heck, from anywhere in the entire Miami Valley! — come on down and see my library, and me. We’ll have fun.
And not as part of America’s Most Wanted! This time!
In two dramatic hours, Alien Encounters lays out a plausible hypothetical scenario for a first contact event. What would really happen if we got a message from space? How will humans react when we learn a spacecraft is on its way to Earth? Will humans learn from aliens, or become colonial subjects?
Some of the world’s leading astrophysicists, astrobiologists, sci-fi writers and and futurists help unravel the scientific, cultural and psychological impact of this world-changing global event.
Alien Encounters is made in cooperation with SETI Institute (the highly respected organization devoted to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which was founded in the early 1960s by renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
I’m part of a group of interviewees which includes Nick Sagan, Seth Shostak, Jill Tarter and Neil Degrasse Tyson. I’m on hand to contribute the science fiction writer point of view regarding alien encounters. Part of my gig was answering questions along the lines of “So, what do you see happening if [insert highly speculative event] happens?” Because, you know. That’s what I do for a living.
To answer anticipated questions, yes, this was one of my secret projects I could not tell you about, no, I don’t know when/where/if it will be screened in countries outside of the United States, and no, I have no idea just how much I will be featured in the actual show. Since they have several experts on hand, I expect my overall face time may be relatively small, and (because I tried to be pithy and amusing) that I may be used primarily for comedy relief. I have reason to believe much of my stuff will be in the second hour, which will air next week. I’ll be watching it for the first time along with the rest of you, so we’ll see.
In any event: Tuesday! 10pm! Eastern! Now you know what you’re doing at that time.
This very day!
I was using it to refer to the homophobes popping up in the Kirk Cameron thread, who apparently think I’m going to let their bigoted, contentless ravings clutter up the site.
Anyway, now you have a new word. Use it. Love it. Live it. But don’t be one.